I want to be clear that this isn’t meant to be my tribute or eulogy post. For a variety of reasons, I’m a private griever and prefer to keep my mourning chiefly out of the public eye. In the days, weeks, and years to come, I will surely continue to reference and reminisce about David Bowie, and I hope those will be seen as acts of love and remembrance, not as public displays of grief.
I also want to make sure nobody doubts that I really love Blackstar. What a fine album! What great videos! So, this is also not a critique or criticism of that work.
And, as a lover of romance and fine stories, I surely won’t spend more time trying to ruin the ending that many people are enjoying right now. (That I enjoyed myself and shall surely enjoy again…But, for now, I help myself move through emotion by trying to anchor myself in something like an intellectual moment.)
What this is is my thoughts, now that I’ve had time to ponder and get my brain engaged, on the understanding and claim that Blackstar was meant as Bowie’s final farewell to us. I certainly see it as a farewell, but I think there are some nuances I’d like to point out that make me question that it was meant as a final farewell.
I’ll proceed from the most public of my three pieces of anecdotal evidence to the most personal.
Tony Visconti said…
The clear starting point to address this belief is the statement from Tony Visconti, who is certainly more of an expert on Bowie and his mindset than I or most anyone else could ever claim to be. Only about 2 hours after news broke of Bowie’s death, Visconti posted this to his Facebook:
(Text: He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.)
This seems a pretty strong argument for those who want to paint Blackstar simply as that final, parting gift. However, Rolling Stone reported:
“About a week before his death, with Blackstar nearing release, David Bowie called his longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti via FaceTime, and told him he wanted to make one more album. In what turned out to have been the final weeks of his life, Bowie wrote and demo-ed five fresh songs, and was anxious to return to the studio one last time.”
Which seems to at least call for some nuance in how we see this. Bowie himself does not seem to have known that Blackstar would be his final album, and it’s therefore arguable that he had other words waiting with which to say farewell or to extend the farewell of Blackstar.
Let the record show…
In the days since Bowie’s death, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s listened to his discography multiple times. And as the rest of you who’ve done that have surely noticed, death and mortality were common themes for Bowie. And not just the deaths of others, but regularly the death of whoever it is that was the point-of-view character for the songs. Again, this doesn’t mean that Bowie wasn’t saying farewell in Blackstar, but that pointing to themes of death and mortality in the album as proof isn’t enough when we take in the whole body of his work.
(For similar but expanded thoughts, please see Will Brooker’s interview in The Atlantic. He is, it’s fair to say, a Bowie scholar and actively an academic. I’m pleased I read this interview before I pushed publish so that you need not just wonder whether this was merely the misperception of my grieving mind.)
Mummy come back ’cause it’s dark now…
I hope you’ll excuse a bit of personal information here in what is, arguably, my most respectable essay since uni. You see, my mum is wrapped up in this. Not because she loved Bowie (she refused to believe he could sing or was a musician worth listening to until I played her Bowie’s Christmas duet with Bing Crosby) or because she played him for me (she didn’t), but because of her own last 18 months.
My mum was born about a month before Bowie, in December of 1946. Skip ahead to her end. My mum’s death was almost exactly 5 years before Bowie’s (were those my five years left to cry in?), in January of 2011, and was also from cancer. In the same Rolling Stone article quoted above, Visconti revealed that Bowie had actually been fighting the cancer for 18 months before it took him. My mum’s initial cancer diagnosis was 18 months before her death. Visconti notes that the cancer resurged after some dormancy the November before Bowie’s death. My mum’s did the same. And, from the fact that Bowie was trying to make one more album just a week before he died, we can argue that the final blow was quite quick. For my mum, it was more like two weeks of warning. But, again, in my mind there’s that parallel.
I don’t mean to argue that the loosely parallel endings give me mystical insight, but I lay out that context as part of the understanding that has lead to my third and final argument for a more nuanced view of Blackstar as an intentional final farewell.
My mum did “wrapping up” things from the start of her 18 month journey with cancer. It’s a rather common human reaction to the spectre of a death that’s more solid than most. So, even without being sure it was his end, Bowie would certainly be normal (and his death is proof that David Jones, the mortal behind Bowie, was occasionally as normal as any other human) if he did some of his own wrapping up things. As an artist, that could easily involve a song or two directly addressing his own mortality.
As time passed and as she became calmly sure she wasn’t going to beat cancer, my mum still fought on to put out every bit of love and farewells and goodness she could, to make sure that her legacy included a graceful approach to her own mortality. It seems completely fathomable, especially in light of keeping his illness and impending end a secret, that Bowie did the same. Rather than sit back and save his energy for healing, he fought on to put out an album and videos…and prepared to do more. One can be sure of one’s mortality without actually putting out only requiems and farewells.
So, yes, I absolutely believe that Blackstar contains some brilliant farewells and glimpses of how Bowie saw his own mortality. But I also believe that there’s reason to argue he didn’t necessarily see it as his final farewell. I suppose this is just my long-winded way of, once again and on one more topic, asking for us to have a more nuanced view. (Even if I’m now going to go and, once again, sob along to the album in question.)